Back in New York City, I have been trying to return to some degree of normalcy after months of following Wesley Clark's every move. After a few days of down time and catching up with neglected friends and family members, I was surprised when I received an e-mail from "Wes Clark."
Sent to the thousands who signed up on his Web site, the e-mail stated that General and Mrs. Clark were looking forward to time off with their son, daughter-in-law and grandson, whom, because of a hectic schedule, Clark had only seen once since the baby's Christmas Day birth. Clark also thanked his supporters for their unfettered support over the duration of his five-month campaign.
"Your e-mails, letters, and phone calls have meant a lot to Gert and me," he wrote, implying he did receive at least some of the many messages.
After reading and rereading Clark's e-mail, I returned from my short mental vacation and began to reflect on my experience of keeping up with Wesley Clark.
When Clark announced his candidacy in September, Howard Dean had all the money, support and fire of a front-runner. Dean captivated many anti-war Democrats with his heated rhetoric, but there proved to be room for a more pragmatic voice. When Clark emerged, he delivered what one senior campaign official described as a "national security vision" that "went far beyond merely saying that Bush was bad and that Iraq was a mistake."
Clark not only outlined what he perceived as Bush's mistakes but also an exit strategy to get U.S. troops out of Iraq. When he spoke about issues like patriotism and national security, Clark believed he brought what he later described as "gravitas" to the Democratic Party.
"They won't attack me on my patriotism because I paid I've served and paid in blood to protect this country. And they won't attack me on my ability to make America safe because I did my entire adult life. And they won't attack me on my ability to be a strong leader, and they won't attack me on my ability to help people. And those are the things that are going to be important in winning this election. If anybody comes after and attacks me and asks me what I am going to do, well I can only tell you that I'm a soldier," he told voters in Keene, N.H., in early January.
By claiming ownership of national security issues, Clark presented voters with an alternative to Dean's impassioned if not fiery critiques, and an anti-Dean candidate emerged.
"I believe by doing this he implicitly began to raise serious questions about whether Dean had the capacity to handle national security issues; in that while Clark was offering a real alternative national security agenda, Dean was only attacking Bush and not going beyond and offering any type of a different approach," one senior campaign official shared told CBS News after Clark left the race.
Because his candidacy was only weeks old and time and resources were short, Clark had to pick between competing in the Iowa caucus or the New Hampshire primary. The campaign decided on a N.H. strategy primarily because primaries are more easily navigated than the sticky caucus system. And it allowed Clark to remain on the East Coast to raise much-needed funds.
Clark's N.H. strategy seemed to be working as his approach resonated with voters. When one January rally drew a crowd of some 1,700, communications director Matt Bennett exclaimed, "We've got the mighty mo', we're rolling."
Voters were realizing that Dean was not the sole voice in a crowded Democratic field. Many Dean supporters who came to hear Clark speak left open-minded, if not converted. Mary Krueger, a N.H. law student who came to hear Clark said, "I started out leaning more toward Dean until I came here tonight. And now I'm little more conflicted about that decision."
By caucus time, Dean began to unravel at such a pace that Iowa would reject the front-runner. But General Clark, who many would argue set the ball rolling, was not there to pick up the pieces.
"Iowa became a referendum on Dean, and Kerry, to his credit, was the candidate standing by to be the beneficiary," a Clark campaign official reflected. "Suddenly, in Kerry, you had a Democrat with national security credentials, who appeared electable, had won a primary and was from the establishment."
Kerry rode the momentum past his Democratic rivals. "The entire landscape had changed and the Clark campaign, which had been designed to be the alternative to Dean, no longer had the rationale of which the candidacy had been predicated upon," the official noted.
Nearly every day of his campaign life after Iowa, Clark was asked whether or not skipping the state was a mistake. Up to the end, he stuck by the campaign's decision. But some, including his son Wes II, believe the choice may have cost the general the nomination, largely because of the media driven momentum that inevitably goes to the winner.
"I wish they would have competed in Iowa, personally," Wes II told reporters in Oklahoma in early February. "The only thing that makes a difference is what the national press covers and how they cover the horse race. And if you miss Iowa then you miss the momentum of the horse race."
While that momentum propelled Kerry to the head of the pack, Clark struggled to keep his candidacy alive. With Kerry as the new anti-Iraq war veteran, Clark had to find a new way to distinguish himself. Being from the South wasn't enough as Sen. John Edwards, also riding high, already cashed in that ticket in Iowa. After several failed attempts to make an issue of his status as a general over Kerry's former rank of lieutenant, Clark settled on the role of the Washington outsider.
In New Mexico, Clark told voters, "I'm an outsider. I don't owe anybody anything and I make my decisions based on what's good for the U.S.A. It seems like my worthy opponents in this race, they're good people, I like them, but they are part of that culture; they've been there and they do those kinds of things. While they've been talking and debating about issues, I've been out in the U.S. Armed Forces, making decisions and leading."
But the greatest asset on his resume was also a burden. There were many who eyed Clark as a gritty, former general out of touch with the electorate – or worse to many Democrats, a Republican running in disguise. "I wouldn't want somebody to look at me and think, 'Well, this guy is just a general. You know generals are high and mighty and all powerful and you know he will never understand the common person,'" Clark said in an interview one day before his campaign ended. "They need to know I'm a person with a vision of hope for America."
Whether it was lack of time, resources or media coverage, the campaign was not able to effectively convey Clark's idealistic vision that voters who heard him firsthand often grabbed hold of. "When I thought about what we could do all around the world if this country just cared for each other, if we just treated every American with dignity and respect, if we just lifted people up instead of setting them one against each other, I knew we could change this country," Clark told New Mexico voters in early February. "That's why I'm running."
"He believes in a better country," Clark's press secretary, Jamal Simmons, said after the general withdrew. "I think in order to give your life in the military fighting for 34 years, depriving your family of certain creature comforts, moving them every two years, you've got to be idealistic. There's got to be something much bigger than yourself that you believe in, and that's what we saw."
Clark left his candidacy with that same hopeful tone his staff saw every day. In his concession speech in Little Rock, Clark reflected on the campaign. "I have loved every minute of this experience. And I leave it wiser, stronger and even more optimistic about the strength and vibrancy of our American democracy. And I'm even more proud to call myself an American."
Since his departure from the race, Clark has made the front pages of both the Washington Post and The New York Times – when he endorsed Senator Kerry. Although he won't be the Democratic nominee, one thing is certain: Wesley Clark doesn't intend to disappear from the public eye.
In the letter to his supporters, Clark concluded with a promise: "There is a long road ahead and a lot of work to do. I'll be back in touch soon with ideas about how we can continue to work together and spread our message across America. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share, please e-mail me."
By Bonney Kapp
By Bonney Kapp